Calling Anthony Burgess prolific is like calling Leonardo creative or Shakespeare poetic. By the time he died of cancer in London on Nov. 25, at age 76, he’d written somewhere around 80 works (even his publishers lost count), including his most famous novel, A Clockwork Orange. He published about 50 novels, as well as works of criticism, history, and linguistics (A Mouthful of Air), and that’s not counting plays, film scripts, television scripts (among them, a series on Aristotle Onassis), opera librettos, translations, and a small mountain of articles and book reviews. Oh, yes, and he also composed music-symphonies, concertos, song cycles, and a Broadway musical (1973’s Cyrano). He was 16 when he wrote his first symphony, which was lost during the war. ”The Luftwaffe was probably right to destroy it,” he remarked.
He once reviewed one of his own pseudonymous novels, but the most vivid example of creative exuberance came in 1959, when he was teaching in Malaya. A doctor diagnosed a brain tumor and advised him to return to England, assuring him that he had only a year to live. Wanting to leave a little money for his wife, he proceeded to write five novels during the year, at the end of which doctors found nothing wrong with him.
Burgess was born in 1917 into an old Catholic family in Manchester, England. He told an interviewer that his comic, language-bending novels were ”really medieval Catholic in their thinking.” But he himself settled into heresy: ”I believe the wrong God is temporarily ruling the world and that the true God has gone under. Thus I am a pessimist but believe the world has much solace to offer—love, food, music, the immense variety of race and language, literature, the pleasure of artistic creation.”
Some high points among the pleasures Burgess offered: A Clockwork Orange (1962) brought him fame, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie version brought him controversy. The story of sadistic delinquents who commit mayhem in a near-future regimented society had its share of stomach-turning violence, but the film turned it up further; it was banned in Britain and still can’t legally be shown there. inside Mr. Enderby (1963), Enderby Outside (1968), The Clockwork Testament (1974), and Enderby’s Dark Lady (1984) all feature F.X. Enderby, a poet whose muse only visits him when he’s sitting on the toilet. He’s both a comic everyman and a beleaguered double of Burgess himself. MF (1971) is a novel based on Burgess’ belief that human nature is divided, that ”life is binary,” that we live in a ”duoverse,” not a universe. Earthly Powers (1980), a novel about a composer that ranges through most of this century and much of the world, is probably Burgess’ magnum opus. Little Wilson and Big God (1987) and You’ve Had Your Time (1990) are Burgess’ bold and sometimes boastful memoirs, absorbing portraits of a man with a robust appetite for food, wine, women, song, and knowledge.